It's the top of rush hour and while the kids are snacking on Goldfish and juice boxes, the clock bleeds mercilessly. The GPS indicates the destination is just minutes away, but traffic snaking along the highway says otherwise. With the last slurps gone and bags of edible distractions tossed haphazardly to the floor, the princess in her leotard and the future Big Leaguer become aware of the slow progression and its budding implication.
"Mom, I'm going to be late for practice," he warns, echoed by a sigh from the princess.
"We'll make it on time," promises Mom, seizing on a small gap in traffic to sneak into another lane.
This is a typical exchange between taxed parents and kids involved in after-school sports, complicating an already hectic workweek. With the strife and demands of making it all happen, parents grind through these challenges because of the many valuable life principles learned through sports. I believe one of those is the principle of self- and team-accountability.
Sports provide an invaluable teaching opportunity. Sure, there are limitations and applications, and like everything else in life, there is always the chance for abuse and excess, but the value import cannot be overestimated and sports should remain a centerpiece of our culture.
Through sports our children grow spiritually, emotionally and physically. Whether it's the triumphs or failures on the diamond, the end zone, the hardwood, or the iced over lake, the range of outcomes and dynamic scenarios stretch a child's growth like no other activity. Given the innumerable situations sports offer and their corresponding emotional significance, it is simply an equation that cannot be solved. It is some of the purest magic available on earth.
It's the "Rally Caps" you wear when you're trailing by two runs in the last inning. The game is all but over, and suddenly there is this burst of confidence, hope and collective desire that fuse when the ball trickles just out of reach of the infielder. The team on the field senses the cosmic shift; it's an indescribable feeling, but players know it. They tense up, and the next routine ground ball spurting out onto the red dirt gets fielded quickly, but for some unknown reason, representing the final out, the ball goes sailing over the first baseman's head. An unlikely error from the visiting team's star player. One run just scored, and the game that should be over is still up for grabs. The whole team is shouting, but not nearly as loudly as the parents, who were already thinking about dinner, homework and baths. It's absolute frenzied chaos, and the visiting team's cosmic awareness is now reflected in a one-run game.
Suddenly, a mountain-load of pressure lands on the shoulders of your son. And, of course, Mom. He walks slowly to the plate, looking over at his support, and receives an encouraging nod from Mom, who is wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans and praying to the heavens that he just reaches base.
The first pitch comes, stronger and faster than all the previous pitches. It smacks the leather hard. The man in blue renders judgment, "Strike one."
The second pitch, a curve ball that seems destined for the head, but then drops hard at the knees, misses the swinging bat by a large margin. "Strike two," he yells again.
The umpire's voice seems to be the only voice for miles, booming and ricocheting off every structure. All parents are feeling the intensity of the moment.
The pitcher is in control, with an 0-2 count, and your son takes a deep breath. You still cannot breathe. The pitch is on the way, and you feel it as soon as it's thrown.
The swing is level, as rehearsed over and over in those hard-to-make-it-on-time practices, and the miracle thud of fast-swinging aluminum connects with the leather ball, and the sound blankets the crowd in the most deafening way. The ball takes beautiful flight with scores of parental eyes watching with unmatched focus. "Please drop," they scream. "Drop!" And the ball hits the grass and triggers the race of a lifetime between Billy, the chubby boy on second base, and the hard-throwing center-fielder.
Parents are on their feet, yelling. A cacophony of sounds.
The third base coach knows this is his opportunity and waves slower-than-average Billy with flailing arms going in circles. He rounds third base nearly tripping, but continues in stride. He is galloping like never before, hoping and praying to make it on time. The ball is catching up to him and is one hop away from skipping into the catcher's mitt.
"Slide! Slide! Slide!" the parents yell at Billy.
"Get down, Billy!" the kids scream from the dugout.
"Down, down, down," the coaches roar with animation.
Billy hits with the most unperfected slide, sure to reward him with a painful strawberry in the morning. He appears to get under the tag but the ruling could go either way, and everyone knows it.
"Safe!" the umpire shouts and his arms jut out to the side violently, back and forth.
The eruption of the dugout and the stands dwarfs the doom and gloom of the visiting team.
Lessons on this night have been delivered by one of the greatest teachers of all -- sports and our enduring passion for them.
The heroes of the night have learned never to give up, to believe not only in yourself, but your teammates. The visiting team has learned never to take anything for granted, and the power of adverse pressure.
March Madness is the most exciting time of college basketball. We are guaranteed plentiful doses of bliss and agony, moments of sheer terror, only to be outdone by moments of beautiful glory. Parents nationwide will be watching their children attempt 'must-make' free throws, while some kids will shoulder the burden of taking -- and missing -- the game winning shot. All the years of practices, close games, broken bones and taped ankles have led up to this moment.
Through sports our children learn to deal with adversity, pressure, disappointment, happiness, hope, belief, and I believe, the universal importance of accountability. Our kids don't have to hit the game winning shot to be heroes, but rather by showing up, working hard and being accountable, they become heroes. And sometimes that isn't reflected in the final score.
"We made it mom," the little hero shouts, starting to unbuckle his seatbelt in anticipation.
"Just in time. Let's go! Your team is waiting for you!"
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